Understanding the Power of Self Fulfilling Prophecy
That little voice in each of our heads can be extremely powerful. When your internal monologue is positive and upbeat, you can feel on top of the world. When it’s spitting out gloom and doom, you can feel down and out. In this way, the power of positive thinking is more than just a platitude, it can actually change your reality.
What you think about yourself, and others, really does matter, particularly when it comes to creating self fulfilling prophecies. A self fulfilling prophecy occurs when your expectations and projections about yourself and the people around you have real-world impact. Positive expectations can lead to positive results, and negative expectations can sometimes do the opposite result.
Here’s what you need to know about the effects of self fulfilling prophecies and how you can harness your thoughts for good, both personally and socially.
What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The term self fulfilling prophecy comes from social psychology. It means that when you make a prediction about yourself or someone else you can actually cause that prediction to come true. Eventually, you, or the person you’re making the expectation about, will act or conform to the expectations you set.
Now, this doesn’t all just happen by magic of course. But, essentially, when you form a bias or opinion in your head, your actions follow to confirm these suppositions. So, when you expect something to happen, you can unknowingly match your behavior to help make that situation unfold the way you predicted it would.
There are two types of self fulfilling prophecies. First there are self-imposed, which is when your expectations for yourself end up influencing your actions. To give an example, let’s say you have a test to take. The weeks leading up to the test, you keep telling yourself that you’re going to fail. Maybe you don’t study as hard because you’re having a hard time concentrating or you feel like what’s the point if you’re just going to fail anyway.
The day of the test you’re nervous and anxious because you didn’t study as well as you should have. And then you end up failing the test, just as you thought you would. This is just one of many examples of self-fulfilling prophecies that can occur, particularly when related to negative thinking, negative thoughts or negative self-talk about your expected behavior or performance.
There are also what’s called other-imposed prophecies, which occur when other people’s expectations influence your behavior. (These opinions typically come from people you value or hold in high regard.)
To use the same testing example, perhaps you did indeed study for your test and feel prepared. But then you talk to your parents about the test, and they remind you about how you usually get stressed out when you take tests, that you shouldn’t get your hopes up about acing it. When you sit down to take the test, their words echo in your head and make you struggle through the questions, resulting in a low score.
In both cases, there’s a mental effect that comes from a person’s own expectations, whether that person is you or someone you trust. A self fulfilling prophecy can also come from the expectations of society at large, which we’ll get to later. These expectations influence what a person believes, then their behavior, which ultimately results in the prophecy’s own fulfillment.
Where does the term “self fulfilling prophecy” come from?
Sociologist Robert K. Merton is credited as defining the term self fulfilling prophecy in 1948. Here’s what he said at the time when creating this concept:
“The self fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation, evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.”
At the core of this definition is a lack of self-awareness.
Those who create self fulfilling prophecies don’t do so intentionally. Unlike self confidence or self motivation, self fulfilling prophecy is subconscious and inadvertent. These predictions and an individual’s expectations happen involuntarily, not as a result of calculated negative talk or thought.
In other words, it means that becoming aware of your thoughts and how they can influence your behaviour is a key way to make the concept of self fulfilling prophecy work for you rather than against you.
Three self fulfilling prophecy examples
Researchers who focus on experimental social psychology have conducted studies to show self fulfilling prophecies in action by investigating the relationship between people’s internal states and their external behavior. Here are three scientifically studied examples of how the concept of self fulfilling prophecy plays out in the real world:
The placebo effect
Discovered during clinical trials, the placebo effect happens when subjects experience positive outcomes when they thought they were given treatment, even though they weren’t. Just believing that they were receiving treatment in a trial or a study can be enough to improve their condition. Further exploration into the placebo effect shows how thoughts hold a great deal of power.
The Pygmalion Effect
This example of self fulfilling prophecy highlights the idea that when we expect people to act in a certain way, our own resulting behaviors can actually make people act the way we predicted.
In a study of the Pygmalion Effect conducted at a public elementary school, teacher expectations influenced the actions of a group of children. Researchers randomly identified certain children as having great potential and intellectual growth, then labeled the rest of the children as merely ordinary and told their teacher who was in which group.
What happened? The so-called “ordinary” children didn’t improve as well as the ones identified as having greater potential—even though the kids were never told what group they were in. Teacher expectations and behavior toward students was enough to influence which students lived up to their supposed potential—or didn’t—depending on how researchers labeled them.
Racial and gender stereotyping, as well as discrimination, provide another example of other-imposed self fulfilling prophecies. People’s expectations based on race or gender affect their treatment of others.
Studies that looked at standardized testing among Black Americans found that this group had lower test scores, which became fodder for racist beliefs that Black people were less intelligent. These studies also provided (again, racist) justification for admitting fewer Black students to college.
However, researchers discovered what’s known as the stereotype threat, a form of self fulfilling prophecy. Since society’s expectations of Black students was lower, these students may have also internalized these views and felt more anxious than non-Black students about taking these tests, which led to lower scores—and confirmed the negative stereotype.
Without awareness of the stereotype threat, these educational self fulfilling prophecies not only continued to marginalize Black students but also made a case for continued discrimination.
Widespread self fulfilling prophecy, like in this example, becomes systemic prejudice, which not only stereotypes whole groups of people but creates a social cycle of continually putting these groups down. These cycles become so ingrained that they’re difficult from which to break free.
The cycle of self fulfilling prophecy
Self fulfilling prophecies are causal loops: thoughts affect feelings, which affect behaviors, which affect thoughts, and on and on and on. Here’s how the cycle plays out in more detail:
- We create a belief(s) about ourselves or others
- These beliefs shape how we act in the world, affecting our decisions, the way we treat others and the way we treat ourselves in relation to others
- How we act influences how other people treat us and create circumstances based on the thoughts we have
- The way people treat us and the life circumstances we create then reinforce the initial beliefs
Now, how do you break this cycle once it starts? That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy comes in. By interrupting the cycle of thought-behavior-thought, you can start to release yourself from a causal loop.
For example, people with depression usually have thoughts of low self esteem, which can trigger isolation, not taking care of themselves and negative behavior which makes depression worse. Changing the causal loop can be really difficult but once the cycle is broken, true healing can begin.
How self fulfilling prophecy can affect your life
As previously stated, self fulfilling prophecy is highly subconscious but being aware of some of the situations in which it can present itself can be helpful for identifying these patterns in your life. By understanding where and how self fulfilling prophecy occurs, you can turn this involuntary thought process into mindful awareness of how your thoughts influence your circumstances (and influence on other people).
The following list is by no means exhaustive of all the scenarios you might create with self fulfilling prophecy but it will hopefully jumpstart greater consciousness of how these beliefs form into your reality.
Dating and relationships
When we make predictions about someone we’re about to meet, we act toward them in ways that reinforce these ideas. If you’re set up on a blind date by a friend and are told that the person you meet is absolutely fantastic, you’ll likely be on your best behavior to impress and dazzle them back, making that person shine because you’re totally engaged and showing interest in them. Your positivity toward this person creates more positivity that gets reflected back to you.
On the flip side, if you make up a story that your friend is setting you up with yet another dud, you might have a negative expression on your face when you meet the person, check your phone at the table or act disinterested. These cues make the other person clam up, put up defenses or act rudely toward you in return.
Other positive self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Telling yourself that the right person is out there for you and working on yourself to be happy and self-sufficient
- Believing your relationship is destined toward marriage and building toward lasting commitment and intimacy
- Understanding that strong relationships take work and compromise so you do you best to listen to and find common ground with your partner, resulting in an equal partnership
Other negative self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Convincing yourself you’ll never meet anyone so you stop trying and don’t meet anyone
- Believing your husband is cheating on you so you pull away, leaving him to feel lonely and seek out an affair
- Telling yourself you married the wrong person and nitpicking everything that’s wrong with your partner as a result, which causes conflict and fights
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to your professional life, since most of us need to work in order to fund our lives. Self fulfilling prophecies, however, can make a difference between crushing your career or feeling crushed by your career.
Let’s say you have a job interview and you tell yourself that you’re going to ace it. You research the company, look up the person you’re meeting with, you prepare questions, you pick out a great outfit—the whole nine yards. When the moment comes, you can confidently present yourself, giving off the vibe that you’re more than capable.
But if you tell yourself that you’re not really qualified—and getting sucked into imposter syndrome—you might feel too nervous to really prepare properly. You’ll be distracted by thoughts telling you that there’s no point in trying because you won’t get the job anyway.
This attitude will be apparent in your interview not only because you lack confidence but because you’ll also seem unprepared, which you are because you were too preoccupied with failure.
Other positive self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Believing that you deserve a raise and asking your boss calmly and clearly for the merit increase you deserve
- Wanting to create community in your office so you start organizing fun events as a way for people to get to know each other
- Knowing you’re qualified for a job so you confidently outline why you’d be a great fit in your cover letter, resulting in a call for an interview
Still more positive self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Feeling undervalued and believing you’re on the verge of getting laid off so you start slacking off at your job and end up getting let go
- Telling yourself that you’re going to blow your presentation, which makes you so nervous that you freeze up in front of everyone
- Making up stories about your coworkers disliking you so you isolate yourself, resulting in you not getting invited to happy hour
As we grow, our friendships may shift and change. The stories we tell ourselves about our friendships have a huge effect on these relationships. For instance, your best friend is getting married and you’re worried that you won’t be a priority in her life anymore because she now has her husband as her best friend and confidant.
You could start pulling away preemptively to save yourself from the hurt of potentially losing her. And this, in turn, could make her pull away because she starts to feel insecure about your bond.
But, if you believe that your friendship can withstand this new chapter in her life, you might reach out to her more often to check in and show real interest in her wedding planning, her new home and her husband. You could even share with her how much she means to you, and any fears you have about losing her, which would further solidify your intimacy as best friends.
Other positive self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Believing you and your best friend will always be close, you nurture your bond and make time to connect every week
- Moving to a new town, you tell yourself you’re going to make new friends so you go out and mingle with the locals, meeting some potential new pals
Other negative self fulfilling prophecies examples:
- Telling yourself a story that your friend is mad at you so you don’t reach out for weeks, then you see on social media she and your mutual friends got together without you
- Convincing yourself that no one really wants to celebrate your birthday with you so you meet your friends’ inquires about your special day half-heartedly until they’re as unenthusiastic as you seem
Inspirational quotes about self fulfilling prophecies
Some of the greatest thinkers have ruminated on the idea of self fulfilling prophecy, allowing us to understand how people’s expectations, and our own, can shape relationships and thought patterns. The following inspirational quotes can help you better understand the concept of self fulfilling prophecy and serve as a reminder to keep your thoughts and suppositions positive. If you like them, take a look at our motivational quotes page too!
If you’re wanting to manifest good things in your life, consider writing one of these quotes on a Post-it to stick on your bathroom mirror as a reminder that you can make your own path or choose your favorite quote as inspiration for journaling:
“Pessimism becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.” ― Howard Zinn
“If you think you’ll always let people down, that’s all you’ll ever do, I said.” ― Julia Claiborne Johnson
“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which more than anything will affect a successful outcome.” — William James
“If you expect the battle to be insurmountable, you’ve met the enemy. It’s you.” — Khang Kijarro Nguyen
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford
Using self fulfilling prophecy for good
Now that you understand self fulfilling prophecy as a concept, ask yourself: How have your thoughts influenced your choices, relationships and life outcomes? What stories do you tell yourself and how often do those stories end up being true? What stories are you ready to let go of?
What should be clear after learning about self fulfilling prophecies is that your thoughts really do matter. By shifting your thoughts from negative to positive, and believing in yourself, you could leave behind destructive cycles. To borrow a term from positive psychology, which studies the strengths that enable people and groups of people to thrive—using the idea of self fulfilling prophecy could help you achieve self-actualization, allowing you to fulfill your unique talents and potential.
Give it a try: As you become more aware of your thoughts you have the power to influence the outcomes in every area of your life for the better.